The Union County Commissioners decided to drop the issue of transferring the county’s emergency service’s department into the sheriff’s office after a slightly unorthodox executive session.

The unannounced private meeting among the commissioners was requested by Commissioner Jack Howard, citing personnel matters during Friday’s work session.

The executive session cleared the room of supporters of the emergency services department and its manager, JB Brock, who had been giving testimony about his department just before the executive session was called.

The transfer request, made by Howard earlier this month, would have potentially placed the emergency services department under the umbrella of the Union County Sheriff’s Office. This arrangement is not unusual in other counties, but according to Commissioner Donna Beverage, it has proved to be unpopular.

“I needed to investigate and talk to people (about this issue),” Beverage said at the beginning of Friday’s meeting. “I’ve had several constituents speak to me about not liking the idea. I went to Washington, D.C., recently and talked with many people across the country who have this. Overwhelmingly, all but two people said you’re giving away the authority. Right now you have three people in charge. With the transfer, you would have just one person in charge.”

Though the transfer would technically have made Capt. Craig Ward Brock’s supervisor, Commissioner Steve McClure said the change would put Brock’s position under one “elected position.”

“I’m trying to make things healthier,” Howard said. “There’s currently an unhealthy coalition of ‘It’s always been done this way.’”

Originally, Howard said he suggested this transfer as a way to improve communication. Several people at Friday’s meeting pointed out the irony in that they only heard about the request by reading about it in The Observer.

La Grande Police Chief Brian Harvey was one of those commenters.

“Have we done an analysis of the need for this?” Harvey questioned. “I’m going to assume no, since no one has talked to me about it. Why are we considering a change when no one has voiced a need? I like to get my information from the source, but I heard about this from the newspaper. There’s no communication with this and the relevant departments.”

Harvey also spoke about Brock’s “respected reputation throughout the entire community.”

“I’m never blindsided by what comes from that department,” Harvey said. “I don’t know what goes on with the county commissioners, maybe there are things going on that I don’t know about, but I’ve never experienced a problem.”

Brock also voiced his concern about the lack of communication regarding the transfer request.

“I think it’s interesting when the problem is about communication. Capt. Craig Ward said (at a previous meeting) there’s not a problem with (communication). There’s always room for improvement, of course — it’s a constantly evolving department. But no one has voiced any issues to me. I don’t know what needs to be fixed,” he said. “I would like for those issues to be discussed with me, and they haven’t (been).”

The meeting was attended by members of the fire departments and law enforcement, concerned community members and Department of Forestry employees. All of their testimony stated they have never had any issues with how the emergency services department is run.

Bill Gamble, the La Grande district ranger manager for the U.S. Forest Service, said the relationship and communication the department has with Brock is “outstanding.”

Joe Hessel, of the Oregon Department of Forestry, agreed. He said he’s seen a lot of emergency service
departments across the state and how they’re run.

“Union County has one of the best, if not the best model, in my opinion,” Hessel said. “My ability to work with (Brock) is crucial. I won’t advocate for one model over another but the way it has been working is exemplary. It’s a successful model.”

Brock told the commissioners that emergency services is a program that works with a multitude of departments every day.

“The sheriff’s office is an important partner, but it’s one program,” Brock said. “It’s the partners that drive the program. If we look at the broader perspective, I don’t understand how placing this under one entity would fix (communication).”

Immediately following Brock’s statements, Howard made the request for the executive session.

Once the doors were opened again, Howard told the group, “You were heard loud and clear.”

The commissioners stated the transfer issue would not be coming up again.